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Can history teach us lessons?

February 20, 2012

'Bikini incident' survivor's story relevant today as Fukushima crisis continues



Eleven months since the outbreak of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), with people still living in fear of radiation exposure, I went to hear what a man who was exposed to radiation 58 years ago, had to say.

Matashichi Oishi, 78, was a crew member of the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or "Lucky Dragon 5," which one day in 1954 found itself covered in the "ashes of death" from a nuclear experiment being conducted in the Pacific by the U.S., off the Bikini Atoll.

"Many people were exposed to blasting winds and extreme heat by the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Oishi said. "As for us, we were covered in radioactive white powder that rained down from the sky, and suffered internal radiation exposure."

It was Feb. 11, and Oishi was speaking to an audience of about 60 people attending a study session co-hosted by a civic group and the Nishitokyo Municipal Government. He'd shut down the dry cleaning business that he'd run for years in Tokyo at the end of 2010.

"I'd always been trying to share my experiences through spoken and written words, but no one would listen to a mere former fisherman-turned-launderer. But ever since the disaster in Fukushima broke out, what I have to say is no longer 'someone else's pitiful story,'" he said.

That Oishi characterized his ordeal -- an incident which sparked Japan's anti-nuclear activist movement -- as having been viewed as "someone else's pitiful story" is testament to the turbulent road he'd been forced to take.

Oishi was the eldest son in a family of six children in the Shizuoka Prefecture town of Yoshida, located next to the city of Yaizu, where Daigo Fukuryu Maru's home port was located. He was 14 years old when he joined the crew of a bonito fishing boat. In January 1954, right after Oishi turned 20, he left port on the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a tuna fishing boat. In the predawn hours of March 1, Oishi and his colleagues were in the Pacific near the Marshall Islands, when a nuclear bomb device detonated some 160 kilometers away.

In his book, "The Day the Sun Rose in the West," Oishi describes what happened in the immediate aftermath: "Two hours passed ... I noticed that the rain contained white particles ... I took a lick; it was gritty but had no taste."

Only later did it emerge that the white powder had been coral reef that had been incinerated by the hydrogen explosion, and scattered through the sky.

"There was enough of it accumulating on the deck of our boat that we would leave footprints. But it wasn't hot to the touch, and it didn't give off an odor, so we weren't fearful of it," Oishi explained. The hydrogen bomb, given the code name "Castle Bravo," is said to have released 1,000 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In the two weeks between the explosion and the boat's return to port, the crew members continued to be exposed internally to radiation through the food they ate and the air they breathed, though the exact degree of their exposure is unknown. According to the public-interest corporation that runs the Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall, it is estimated from crew members' white blood cell counts and other symptoms that they were exposed to an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 millisieverts of radiation. Exposure to 4,000 millisieverts of radiation at once is said to result in death for 50 percent of people.

The oldest of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru's 23 crew members, then 40-year-old Aikichi Kuboyama, died half a year later from acute radiation syndrome. Oishi, meanwhile, lost his hair and saw his white blood cell count drop, but was able to go home after being hospitalized for 14 months.

In 1955, the Japanese and U.S. governments reached an agreement in which the U.S. government would pay the Japanese government 720 million yen in "sympathy money," without having to take any legal responsibility. Politically, the Bikini Incident had been settled. But what awaited Oishi in his hometown were others' prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes toward him as a victim of radiation exposure, and jealousy over the 1.9 million yen he'd received. People even asked him to shoulder loans that they had no prospects of paying back.

The white powder at the bottom of this bottle is a sample of the

The white powder at the bottom of this bottle is a sample of the "ashes of death" brought back by the crew of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. No radioactivity can be detected from it today. (Mainichi)

Unable to withstand the treatment, Oishi relocated to Tokyo and began working at a dry cleaner's. "I wanted to live unnoticed among the crowd in a place where no one knew about my past radiation exposure," Oishi said.

He eventually married, but the couple's first child was stillborn. Fearing that the discrimination that plagued him would burden his wife and two children who survived, Oishi kept mum on his experience. And still, he could not keep the prejudice from seizing his loved ones.

"Two of my daughter's engagements were broken off," Oishi recalled. "Just because one was exposed to radiation or is related to someone who did, people saw us as somehow deviating from 'the human realm.'"

Through all this, his fellow crew members continued to die from cancer and other health problems. Oishi asked himself if it was acceptable to stay quiet about what he and his fellow shipmates had experienced. In 1983, 29 years after the incident took place, Oishi spoke to a group of junior high school students about the Bikini Incident. This experience led to his decision to continue sharing his story far and wide.

"It's frustrating, isn't it? I've suffered so much from discrimination and prejudice, while many of my fellow fishermen died from illness in their 40s and 50s. Meanwhile, their surviving families continued to suffer. If I do not speak out about it, as someone who was actually there, the incident will be forgotten. I have no choice but to speak out. That's what I thought."

Since then, Oishi has traveled across the country giving talks about the dangers of radiation and internal exposure. It was one day in the recent past that "someone else's pitiful story" turned into "my grave story" for all those affected by the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

"The Bikini Incident and the recent nuclear plant disaster are essentially of the same nature in that they have both caused internal exposure to radiation. However, I inhaled and was covered (in radioactive materials) for two weeks, while the people of Fukushima are living in it. It's outrageous. (Radiation) isn't visible, and no one wants to leave their hometowns. But radiation detection devices register certain radiation levels. ... The people must be at their wits' end.

"What are we going to do about radiation, and about nuclear power? We can't leave it up to the leaders who don't want to lose in international competition, because they will resist seeing the health effects of radiation exposure as significant. The public must think this through with raised awareness, or this problem will remain unresolved forever."

At his home in Tokyo, Oishi showed me a bag full of his medications, including ones to improve the symptoms of angina and myocardial infarction, others to prevent asthma attacks, as well as those for the treatment of infections. He takes approximately 30 kinds of drugs per day.

"To be honest, the reason I'm able to hold out is because of the medication," Oishi said. "If it weren't for the medication, I wouldn't be here."

In 1992, Oishi was diagnosed with liver cancer and received surgery for it. He now has a tumor in his lung, and his asthma-like coughing fits can't be kept under control without his meds. He also has arrhythmias and cataracts. It's not clear if there's a causal relationship between his encounter on a shipping boat years ago and his ailments today, but Oishi says in his aforementioned book that none of the conditions existed before he encountered the U.S. nuclear experiment.

Concerned with the possible aftereffects of his exposure to radiation, Oishi continued to undergo physical exams once a year at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, which was founded in 1957 as a direct result of the Bikini Incident. He stopped going, however, after his checkup in 1992, because the institute would not give him detailed data even though he requested it.

"My liver cancer was detected at a different hospital, too," Oishi said. "I began to feel that for the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, we were merely research subjects. Based on what I've seen and heard about the slow response of the national government to the plight of people in Fukushima, I get the impression that things haven't changed. Unless we try to learn from the lessons of past radiation victims, I'm afraid that our painful experiences will be repeated."

Of the 23 crew members who were on the Daigo Fukuryu Maru the day of the 1954 explosion, 14 have already died. With the exception of Kuboyama, the national government has not recognized any cause-and-effect relationships between the exposure of crew members to radiation and the illnesses they eventually developed. As Oishi has not been issued an atomic bomb survivor's health handbook -- official certification from the government that would make him eligible for special health benefits -- he continues to receive medical treatment under the standard health insurance program. (By Mamoru Shishido, Evening Edition Department)

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